Google Search – The Success story

[This article is part of Ten Years, Ten Products and Ten Million Lessons series, where we will take successful startups and drilll down their success story.]
Few justifications if any, need to be given for choosing “Google Search” as the product of the year from 1998. It has been a winner in terms of User-Base, Brand Equity and Revenues. But Google didn’t have it easy, they had established competitors (Excite, Yahoo!, Lycos, AltaVista) and making a search engine needs massive resources (Data center costs etc), so here, let’s make a humble attempt to analyze what did they do right?

Google in 1998
Google in 1998

The Problem:

  • For Consumer:

How do I find what I need among billions of pages of Text and Image?

  • For Service Providers:
  1. How do I maintain a searchable database of exponentially growing information, which can produce relevant results quickly ? (Technology to crawl wasn’t the problem, maintaining the relevancy was).

  2. Users are not clicking on advertisements, why should a user be interested click on a dog-food advert who is looking for “the price for a network switch rack”

What were Competitors doing?

  • Yahoo! Search: It wasn’t a direct competitor as they started as a web directory of website organized in a hierarchy. Their model wasn’t sustainable with the exponentially growing amount of information. As a matter of fact, after Inktomi in 2001, Google provided search results to Yahoo! till 2004. At 10% market share they are currently the third largest service after Google and Bing.
  • Excite: Another startup from Stanford University, found in 1994, its search engines (Magellan and WebCrawler) were acquired in 1996. The company from the start was not found with the sole focus of search. By 1998 Yahoo! was planning to acquire it and finally @Home Network acquired excite in January, 1999. By 2001 they were Bankrupt.
  • AltaVista: Lack of focus can be attributed as the biggest reason for the fall of AltaVista, which was arguably the first full-text Internet search Engine. A cluttered interface combined with slow loading time and excessive advertisements in the search results were the primary reason for AltaVista’s demise. The current page, resembling Google.com is a late attempt to rectify the error’s mentioned above.

What Google Did?

  • Innovation & Mathematical Rigour:

They turned their biggest disadvantage, the exponentially growing amount of information, into their biggest asset. Before we move on, a quick overview on Google’s “PageRank” algorithm (Larry Page, hence the etymology) to provide search results.

PageRank Technology: PageRank reflects our view of the importance of web pages by considering more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Pages that we believe are important pages receive a higher PageRank and are more likely to appear at the top of the search results.

PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. We have always taken a pragmatic approach to help improve search quality and create useful products, and our technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page’s importance.”

–from Corporate Information page, Google.

Also the graphic and the explanation at the Wikipedia link of PageRank should help if you want to further understand how PageRank works.

So effectively each website by putting a link of “a particular website” casts a vote in favour of that website, and the ‘weight’ of that vote is determined by the importance of the website which is casting that vote. Hail the holy democracy!

They didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, but choose for a clever implementation of a real world system of citations and references among academic texts.

  • Focus:

It should be noted that the first service launched by Google beyond search, was in January 2004 and then Gmail in April 2004, a full six years after they first launched them, compare this to Excite and Lycos as shown above.

They also didn’t just sit on their laurels, implementations of NLP (Natural Language Processing) for answering “200 USD to INR”, reduction in crawling time of new pages and many others were constant innovations being showered into the engine.Their simple search page, is also another indication of their intention on being focussed on “providing the best possible search results”.

  • In-House Development

One important feature to note is that most of the critical technologies at Google have been Developed in-house, including their own file system for storing cached web pages. Google has not acquired a search engine/crawler technology unlike Excite even now, when they can pretty much afford any.

  • Human Resources

I shall not bore you about writing the importance of ‘People’ , but consider this, even the first chef that this company hired was the previous chef of “The Grateful Dead”, a music band. It is important to note, that they have maintained the consistency in everything they do, even today a full 11 years after the company was found Google attracts the best talent, courtesy its work culture and environment, proven by its ranking as one of the most favourable destination to work at.

  • Respecting the User:

Most Industry experts consider one of the primary reasons as the downfall of AltaVista was its interface cluttered with advertisement and real results being mixed with sponsored with. Don’t Be Evil

  • Notes:

But it should be noted a success of startup is a function dependent on ‘n’ number of parameters being used correctly, doing one thing right will not suffice, but doing one thing wrong can prove fatal. More like the application procedure for a MS in MIT/CalTech etc, you need your CGPA, SAT score, SoP and Extra-Curricular to be all right at the same time. For example there was another search engine “RankDex” who was using similar back link votes algorithm, but failed to get the rest of the things right, and hence went into oblivion.

It should also be noted that Google Founders have 10x voting rights in the Board, reflecting their and investors confidence in them.

I have touched upon some of the several reasons as to what distinguishes Google from others. Various points over here don’t intend to serve as exhaustive analysis but more as pointers for you to further ponder upon. Feel I have missed out something, mention them in the comments section below.

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